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Tanato Foundation Professor in Diabetes Research
Professor, Cardiovascular and Metabolic Disorders Programme, Duke-NUS Medical School
“Most major discoveries come by serendipity,” muses Professor Karl Tryggvason.
It was a modest statement to come from this world-renowned clinician-scientist, known for his extensive work – all four decades worth – on basement membranes and laminins, which have expanded possibilities for medical research and therapies.
But having sat on the Nobel Prize evaluation committee for 18 years, Prof Tryggvason knows this for a fact: most winners didn’t plan on getting an award.
“Sometimes we think we’re cloning one gene, but it turns out to be something else,” he speaks of his own experience in the lab. It’s also the reason why Prof Tryggavason encourages his students to get creative.
“If you want to try something, do it. You’re allowed to make mistakes,” he says.
While Prof Tryggvason is used to the element of surprise in the laboratory, he was not expecting his career trajectory to take such a fateful turn in 2012.
Just as he was about to retire at age 64 from the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, an opportunity came through from Professor Thomas Coffman, Dean of Duke-NUS Medical School.
After successfully obtaining the Singapore Translational Research Investigator Award, Prof Tryggvason put retirement on hold and flew to the sunny island of Singapore.
It was a move that would take his career to new heights.
Bringing results into clinics
“We’ve made many discoveries here, especially on how laminins drive cell differentiation. We’re now developing regenerative therapies to treat damaged tissues and cells. It’s important that what we do goes towards curing patients,” says Prof Tryggvason, whose team is now aware of 16 different laminin types.
A triumphant collaboration has been one between Prof Tryggvason and Dr Alvin Chua from the Muscoskeletal Sciences Academic Clinical Programme. The pair, along with a student of Prof Tryggvason’s, successfully used laminin for the culture of human skin cells to treat burn wounds.
“We hope to move forward with clinical trials in middle of 2020 and then spread the method all over the world, especially in South Asia where burn wounds are common,” he says.
Yet another breakthrough involves using laminin for heart muscle regeneration, a research area that Prof Tryggvason noted has traditionally been fraught with “failures and fraud” overseas.
His team is also working with Ophthalmology & Visual Sciences Academic Clinical Programme to culture photoreceptors to prevent and treat blindness.
For translational studies to be smooth and fruitful, Prof Tryggvason stresses the importance of having good collaborators. “Everyone has a different role to play, and we have to work in harmony,” he says.
Despite being in science since 1975, Prof Tryggvason still likens his work to a hobby that never ceases to excite him. “It’s fun when you create fresh knowledge. And there’s satisfaction when you get good and new results. It keeps you going.”
The veteran also draws a parallel between science and art, explaining, “To create good art, you need to be creative and distinct. It’s the same in science. We work hard on specific problems, and you never run out of ideas as you make progress step by step.”
Rigour and passion are also apparent among Prof Tryggvason’s protégés. “We have all kinds of people from different countries, but what unites us is the joy we get from our work and finding solutions to problems.”
Prof Tryggvason, however, is no-nonsense when it comes to ethics. Nobody on his team is to copy, falsify, polish results or take shortcuts “just to get into a journal”.
Age is just a number
For all his scientific achievements, Prof Tryggvason concedes, “There’ll always be another mountain to climb, another peak to reach. The questions will never stop.”
For a better shot at success, he urges students and aspiring scientists to find a good supervisor and the best laboratory where best-in-class education can be found. But it’s also important to simply start somewhere. “It’s not necessary to start at once with your favourite project,” says the veteran who has trained 46 PhDs to date.
Though Prof Tryggvason is now in his early 70s, he finds no reason to slow down. “My thesis supervisor is 82 and his supervisor is 90. They’re both still actively working,” he says, adding, “At some point I’ll have to stop. Right now however, I’m still healthy and I’ll keep on going.”